With American Brittney Griner being exchanged for Russian Victor Bout, the deal has courted controversy and left us questioning human worth.

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What we value and how much we value any given thing is a subjective affair. We might look at price tags on things, but they are for guidance only. If you aren’t prepared to pay that much for a widget, you won’t buy one. You can try to haggle to arrive at a mutually agreeable exchange with the vendor. Here, everyone benefits.

Humans are not widgets. However, it does appear that they have value, and they can be the subject of much bargaining.

Over the course of the Ukraine War, there have been many prisoner swaps. Even when these swaps involve handing over the same number of people, there will have been fierce debates between the sides as to what sort of prisoners were handed over. Are both sides getting an equitable deal?

We don’t usually talk in terms of “deals” when it comes to human lives. Well, perhaps we do. In the world of sports, sportsmen and women, with their perceived levels of skill and thus value, are often exchanged for money. When we work, we are being valued for the output we produce by the organizations that employ us, getting pay deals and packages that are, hopefully, mutually beneficial.

These ideas of value are all the more pressing when they involve people’s very lives, and certainly their living conditions and freedom.

Brittney Griner is a WNBA basketball player who may have, as a child, chanced on dreaming she would be this famous one day, but never in the way she is now. It appears that Griner’s celebrity, thrust upon her when she was arrested entering Russia to play in the off-season for their premier league, has accorded her some very serious value.

Griner had apparently been carrying vape canisters containing cannabis oil—though this might have been true, it is also a favorite ploy of Russian authorities. After nine months of imprisonment, she has been exchanged for the “Merchant of Death”: A man who can be seen as a military asset.

When you buy a widget for $5, the implication is that the widget is worth, to you at any rate, at least as much as what you exchanged it for (the $5).

Brittney Griner is no longer a human being for many of these people. Instead, she is a checklist in a war of a very different kind, and one that has been raging and surging for years, taking its toll on the electorate—the culture war.

If you buy a widget for $5, it’s really rather bizarre for someone to tell you that you were wrong. You can’t be wrong in how you personally, subjectively ascribe value! If you are happy to buy a widget for $5, then that widget is, for you, worth $5!

Thus, it appears that Brittney Griner was worth at least as much to the Biden administration as one Victor Bout, a Russian weapons trader who has been imprisoned in the US for over a decade.

The thing is, as mentioned, value is subjective. Deeply, often viscerally and irrationally, subjective.

There are certain people—no doubt Griner’s family, wife, and friends—who would have given everything for her return, sending her value sky-high.

But there are others (oh, are there others!) who have been somewhat less impressed with the art of this deal. Others who place Brittney Griner value at the very wrong end of the human worth spectrum.

Even though Victor Bout has served a good deal of his 25-year sentence, he is seen as a man of considerable value since he has been involved in a dangerous, illicit, bellicose sort of dealing. As a former Soviet army lieutenant colonel, Bout could have been a character in a Bond movie. Indeed, he was portrayed in Lord of War by Nicholas Cage.

He must be worth a lot!

Griner, on the other hand, plays sport. This deal, for certain Republicans such as (in this case) Donald Trump, has been called an “unpatriotic embarrassment.” Former ambassador and war hawk John Bolton called it a “surrender.”

Is it because Griner is a woman? Is it because she is a lesbian? Is it because she is Black? Is it because she is associated with the BLM movement, a sportswoman who protested the Star-Spangled Banner in the 2020 Olympics where she won her second gold medal?

Brittney Griner is everything that many Republicans hate: A reflection of modern progressive values. Trump summed up the surge of anti-Biden and -Griner invective:

“What kind of a deal is it to swap Brittney Griner, a basketball player who openly hates our Country, for the man known as ‘The Merchant of Death,’ who is one of the biggest arms dealers anywhere in the World, and responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and horrific injuries,’ Trump mused. 

“Why wasn’t former Marine Paul Whelan included in this totally one-sided transaction? He would have been let out for the asking. What a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!”

Brittney Griner is no longer a human being for many of these people. Instead, she is a checklist in a war of a very different kind, one that has been raging for years, taking its toll on the electorate—the culture war.

There is no doubt Putin’s Kremlin will feel they have played a good hand in choosing Griner as their pawn since she has ended up being so divisive.

Brittney Griner is no longer a human being for many of these people. Instead, she is a checklist in a war of a very different kind, one that has been raging for years, taking its toll on the electorate—the culture war.

As ever, there will have been so much more to this deal than immediately meets the eye, and perhaps we will never really know of the details. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman helped broker the deal, and it is rather a coincidence that this took place a mere 48 hours after the US dropped a lawsuit holding him responsible for the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

And there is no surprise that Biden waited until after the midterms to organize this exchange. Which is to say that Biden and his team very much knew that this would provide very bad optics for half of the nation. But they did it anyway. Which is then to say that Biden’s team valued Griner and whatever else went into the bargain at least as much as Bout and whatever else was on the table that we know nothing of.

It’s that simple. The deal was worth it.

The Paul Whelan that Trump and other Republicans are angry about is an American corporate security director and former Marine who was convicted of espionage. He has been held in Russia since 2018. The Biden administration had previously tried to organize a deal to exchange Bout and Griner. There are many, like Trump, who would have preferred this: A military man for a military man.

Both sides have surely played their cards with some thought. Griner was given a harsh sentence and sent to a penal colony. Her plight has been played out on national TV.

The US, for their part, have been trying to round people up the length and breadth of the globe for things like evading sanctions.

At the end of the day, it could be that, though there might be a host of secret variables of which we are unaware in this deal, the Biden administration was simply looking at the moral angle. Griner was a human being—an American citizen—irrespective of whether she was a basketball player or an arms dealer. And, in this sense, the US had a moral obligation to return her home.

As a senior administration official told reporters yesterday that, “We tried for all sorts of alternatives. We tried to pay, of course, as little a price as possible. But ultimately, we feel the moral obligation and the policy obligation to bring people who are being held hostage or wrongfully detained home.”

What we might have witnessed says everything about what the US aspires to be set against everything that Putin’s Russia presently is. This is all playing out against a backdrop of cities like Bakhmut where Putin’s enforced mobilized conscripts are sent to their deaths in a macabre meat grinder for no other reason than to appease the imperialistic narcissism of a dictator clinging on to power. For Biden, Griner is a human with intrinsic value, not a pawn with utility in a game of geopolitical chess. Her exchange isn’t about making Joe Biden more powerful.

Instead, perhaps it’s about showing Joe Biden as less mercenary, less transactional, more decent, more human. He is a man of morals.

And it just might be that you can’t put a value on that.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...